‘Show Boat’ Is Racist AND Boring, And I Don’t Know Which Is Worse

By Bryce Palmer

When I was new to the marvelous world of theatre, I specifically remember asking one of my close friends about Black musicals. I never really heard of any, and I wanted to get the lay of the land as I began to develop into somebody who would love musicals endlessly.  I still remember that answer, even to this day: “There’s Hamilton! And uh… Show Boat? I guess? I don’t know… there aren’t many honestly.”

Before we get to Show Boat, I’d like to talk a little about my friend’s first recommendation: Hamilton. I didn’t mind that as a recommendation (I had seen it already) but it kind of rubbed me the wrong way that this was the show at the top of the bill. Don’t get me wrong, Hamilton is marvelous. It’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and a lot more. But please make no mistake: Hamilton is not a story about Black people. It’s a recontextualization of a white story that uses Black and brown bodies to give it a modern day relevance. There are many arguments about whether this is productive or detrimental, and I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. That Hamilton is the famous show with Black people in it is telling, and such a reality is a result of a blatant lack of desire to tell Black stories on Broadway. That Hamilton features a heavily Black cast is both encouraging and disparaging, and here’s why: We had it in us all along.

Hamilton’s success (plenty of which stems from the awe-inspiring performances of its cast members) shows us not only that stories with black people can succeed on Broadway, they can thrive. They can shatter records and start phenomena… and all it took was a storyline about old white men to get people to actually notice! Hamilton has given me at least a little confidence that we’ll see more Black stories soon, and especially so after the “We See You White American Theatre” movement that gained traction over the summer, which called (calls) for increased opportunities for POC in every aspect of the creative process in theatre on the biggest stage and throughout. For these reasons, Broadway seems to be ushering in something of a new age of diversity, but I’m not holding my breath quite yet. Wait and see (or, rather, just you wait) what happens.

Now onto friend suggestion #2, Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat. I had heard a little bit about Show Boat before, and I knew that it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for when I asked for suggestions. But this class has given me the means and the medium for thinking critically about musical theatre, so I figured I would finally give the show a shot in its entirety. We also talked in class (via module) about some of the show’s anthems earlier on when we were discussing Blackness on Broadway, (particularly Ol’ Man River and Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man) and from that rose a little of the inspiration for this critique as well.

I went in with decently lofty hopes, having heard solid things about the characterizations of the Black people in the show but… that was my first mistake. The show features a shallow storyline of 2-dimensional white women falling head-over-heels for their even less established white male counterparts. The black characters in this show are accessory, servants to the white characters, and proud. None of the show is even about Blackness, but instead it pits Black people as these Great Wise beings who have only been made wiser and stronger by working in diligent servitude to the good ol’ white folk.
It’s okay to let things go. Or, at least, it should be. Why, why, why haven’t we let Show Boat go? Yes, I understand we have to pay homage to the foundation of modern musical theatre, and yes, I get that Kern and Hammerstein are “brilliant” and “revolutionary.” But Show Boat hurts. To be a Black person looking for a home in the musical theatre and have Show Boat be the touchstone… that sucks. I would truthfully rather the theatre world forget the show entirely than celebrate it because of the “barriers it broke down” or whatever. That this story is still being told today, and that it’s the only Black story of note (if you can even call it that) is harmful. For Show Boat to be the go-to Black story recommendation for a young Black kid looking to get into theatre isn’t just irresponsible, it’s actively destructive. We can do better. We must.

Like A Sore Thumb: Why Lin-Manuel Plays the Leads

By Bryce Palmer

Lin-Manuel Miranda is the most famous Broadway composer there’s ever been, and that’s no accident. He’s earned his stripes telling diverse sets of stories on Broadway, both behind the scenes and under the bright lights. In an era where diversity was certainly lacking on Broadway, Miranda and his stories were a welcome change of pace for a mostly white medium. Many complain that Miranda’s stage talent is not exactly up to par with the rest of his cast mates in his shows, most notably so in Hamilton, but the critics fail to see one thing. Miranda, by way of his performance in the biggest role in the biggest show in Broadway history, has established his place as a household name, and, in turn, his presence as a powerful voice on The Great White Way for years to come.

Miranda got his start early, writing and staging original productions as early as middle school. His most formative work was that which he did on In The Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. From there, he gained traction toward an eventual workshop and Broadway production of the show. During the workshop, Lin-Manuel’s original plan was to play Usnavi until they could hire a “real actor” (a quote from the director of In The Heights, Tommy Kail, by way of Lin-Manuel himself). After the workshop process, the show’s artistic crew had grown so fond of Miranda in the role of Usnavi that that is where he remained for the better part of a year once the show hit the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway.

Miranda gained some of his experience as a composer and lyricist on the Broadway hit Bring It On!, where he was a small name on a big ticket that included Tony-winner Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, If/Then), among others. He starred in Heights shortly before Bring It On! officially went up, and thus began his ascent to fame. Miranda was also recruited to help with Spanish translations for the revival of West Side Story, an experience that lead him to a partner-/mentorship with famed broadway composer Stephen Sondheim (Sondheim, known through the theatre world as an expert in lyricism and composition, would later give Miranda feedback on an early draft of Hamilton).

Miranda talks often about how he grew up with West Side Story being the only real representation of his culture he could find on Broadway. Ironically enough, West Side Story was written by an entirely white creative team, with the famous Leonard Bernstein having been struck with the idea for the setting because of his fondness for Latin rhythms. Broadway has a long history of telling stories with POC at the forefront, when in reality most all of them are written by white people with little similarity in perspective to the characters they write about and even less respect for the cultures they sometimes unknowingly condemn.

Miranda cites some of his inspiration for In The Heights as having come from West Side Story’s violent portrayal of Puerto Rican people and their culture. Miranda wanted to paint a picture that depicted his people not as violent and resentful, but as the beautiful, cultured, fun-loving, complex community of individuals he knew them to be. This desire was an important part of who Miranda has become today, as the representation found in Heights and Hamilton is a voice for many. Through his work, Miranda paints a big, gorgeous, glorious picture of what it means to represent different identities through the means of a medium that has been almost shockingly stagnant in that regard for so long.

Early in his life, Miranda saw a production of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, which led him to the idea for In The Heights. Rent showed Miranda that one could write a musical about their reality, an opportunity he was more than happy to take advantage of. Through In The Heights, Miranda built his platform by telling a story about life the way he grew up seeing it: through the proverbial kaleidoscope that is Washington Heights. In the Heights went on to win 4 Tony awards, and Miranda, having starred in the show that won Best Musical, had a new claim to fame.

Miranda continues, to this day, to parlay his success into other jobs, into other opportunities to be a voice for those that have none. He was brought on board to write songs for the Disney feature animated film Moana, and his presence brought along with it a popularity for a story that would go on to make waves (pun not intended) in the world of representation. In the aftermath of In The Heights, Miranda continues to be a staple not only for helping others find representation in popular media, but also for being careful and attentive enough to capture their culture in a positive light. Miranda has become the change he wanted to see in the world: he has become the pagan of representation that he looked for in his youth, he has become a voice for the voiceless.On a vacation away from the business of In the Heights and the hustle and bustle of Broadway and all of his other projects, Miranda brought only one book with him: Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. The rest is, well… history.

Live in Living Color: Miss Saigon’s ‘American Dream’

On the surface, Schönberg and Boublil’s Miss Saigon is pretty. It is complete with all the frivolity of the classic American musical: from extreme and shameless objectification of its female characters to the reduction of its characters of color to stereotypes, this show has it all. Miss Saigon tackles themes of love, lust, parenthood, dreams, desire, all through the perspective of a couple of protagonists.

First up, we have Kim. Kim seems to be our hero, at least of sorts. In the show’s opener, we get a good idea of who Kim is. There’s a conversation between her and the Engineer that basically tells the audience that she’s a young woman who has recently decided to sell her body as a way to put food on the table. Simply put, she’s out of options. The opener to the show is the not-so-long awaited Miss Saigon pageant, (if you can call it that) in which the Engineer can be found hustling prostitutes to American soldiers that are fighting in the Vietnam War. 

In said pageant, Kim is clearly uncomfortable being viewed as just another piece of meat. This is something that  those around her do we have a great mastery of. “I’m Seventeen and I’m new here today,” she sings. “The village I come from seems so far away. All of the girls know much more what to say but I know, I have a heart like the sea! A million dreams are in me!” From the outset, Kim is depicted as the typical young, easily-influenced girl (with broken english) who doesn’t really know what she’s doing and seems to have gotten herself into a situation that she can’t handle. Say what you will about Kim, she is Not Like Other Girls. The show’s story takes advantage of the empathy that it tries to collect from the audience by putting this innocent girl in this precarious situation.

Miss Saigon does an excellent job of taking advantage of the “suffering woman” trope.  One complaint that many have about Les Misérables (also by Schönberg and Boublil) is that the female characters have little to no agency, meaning that they are acted upon rather than taking action themselves. For the beginning parts of Miss Saigon, this is more or less true for Kim as well. But, as a plot progresses, we see a new version of Kim who packs up and chases her son’s father. By taking a character whom the audience has learned to feel sorry for and using her to push the envelope on what it feels like to be wronged, at its essence, is exactly but every storyteller aspires to do. The problem with how Miss Saigon does it is that Kim is a very particular character from very particular context. It is evident that she’s being stereotyped and generalized into a place of such dire misfortune as a way of trying to evoke sympathy points from an audience. 

As for the actress that portrays Kim (Eva Noblezada), she is not Vietnamese. Wonderful? Yes. Talented? Oh, no doubt about it. I’ve bragged to friends about her being maybe the most talented actress I’ve ever seen perform live. But at the end of the day, she is simply Not Vietnamese. And that is important. To this day, Eva swears that playing Kim in Miss Saigon was the most fun she’s ever had as a performer and the most transformative role she’s ever taken on. I worry that she doesn’t see what I see. I worry that she doesn’t understand how she was used to perpetuate a stereotype. Worse yet, I worry that she does know and just doesn’t care.

Next, we have our wonderful, lovable Engineer. The Engineer is the only male Vietnamese character in the only popular Vietnamese show in America (more or less). Musical theatre, both historically and presently, tends to have mostly white audiences. That means that this image of a Vietnamese man will be the only one that a lot of people ever really see. That’s important. Performers of color get very few chances for representation, especially in musical theatre. That means that when they do get this kind of representation, they jump at the chance, they scream and they cry, they celebrate. 

That is, unless the representation is abhorrent and ill-fitting.  Miss Saigon depicts the Engineer as a money hungry, smash-and-grab, make a quick buck, slick talking guy who will do anything to achieve and attain the success that he knows is possible in America. I can’t think of a more damaging stereotype then the classic “America is the center of the universe” mindset that so many people (in life, musical theatre, and everything in between) take on. Using characters of color to  show off this narrative is as damaging as it gets. Moreover, it’s especially harmful because you can hide bigotry under the guise of providing opportunity for characters of color and for representation on the big stage.

As for Jon Jon Briones, (our Engineer) he is also… Not Vietnamese. That means that both of the main characters in this Vietnamese narrative are not actually played play Vietnamese people. For Miss Saigon to deface a people and a culture under the guise of representation, and then to not even actually give them that representation… there are few greater injustices in the performing arts world.

I want to take one more minute to discuss the character John, the fun-loving best friend. The (black) fun-loving best friend. John occurs at some bizarre intersection of token black character and bizarre generalization and thoughtful portrayal and complex human being. In a show that relies so heavily on the American Dream trope, it’s a little off-putting that the Engineer’s only real connection to American people ( through the military) is John. One thing that Miss Saigon never touches on, is whether or not the soldiers fighting in the Vietnamese War are a part of or living the American dream. In the original cast, John was played by a white man. I do not know what went into the decision of making him black, and I’m hesitant to argue against representation, (as I’m sure all POC in theatre are)  but I most certainly do have some problems with John being a black character. John. Is. So. Weird. He goes from singing about buying his friend a Vietnamese prostitute in the Act I opener to singing about saving the Bui Doi in the Act II opener. Character arc? Maybe. General Negligence? More likely. Hugh Maynard’s presentation of John is certainly a part of this equation. He’s this cool, caring, charming guy who likes to sleep with prostitutes but also wants to help babies. Nice.

But “so what?” you ask (and you should).  Well, here’s the thing. Here’s the kind of scary, bizarre, head-scratching thing: if you asked me what was wrong with Miss Saigon after my first watch, I couldn’t have told you. In fact, I would have recommended you watch it. For a long time, it’s been my mom’s favorite show, and she’s the one who got me into theater. After doing a really deep dive into the show and its themes, the first thing I did was call her and tell her that there was no way she could like it anymore (or at least, that she need be more mindful of what she was interacting with). 

Before critically analyzing Miss Saigon, I didn’t see an issue with it. I thought it was a fun story with fun characters and cool music.  I totally and completely neglected to realize that it’s an intentionally degrading story with caricatures of real people that were actually victims of some very heinous war crimes during the Vietnam war. This is what Miss Saigon does so beautifully but so tragically: it takes advantage of a mindset that is so ingrained into the general population, uses it to rise to general popularity, and stays there. It uses its engine and its Engineer to get into the good graces of the musical theatre world, at the expense of the people that it claims to honor.